Strenuous Moral Living

Strenuous Moral Living

Todd Lekan

Abstract. In this paper I seek to make sense of James’s account of strenuous moral living, and the role that theological belief plays in the strenuous life. I will show that some of his arguments for the moral necessity of belief in the “theological postulate” are not tenable, and that his case is stronger if his conclusion is weakened to the claim that theological belief may be necessary for some, but not all serious moral agents. I suggest that by drawing on the rich insights about ethical attention in works such as James’s Talks to Teachers, we can make better sense of the theological postulate as strategy for attending to one’s agency in a way that unleashes strenuous moral action.
I) Introduction
    In his only sustained work on moral theory—”The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”—James claims that there is a fundamental difference between those who live moral lives in a strenuous mood and those who take a more “easy-going” approach. He writes, “the deepest difference, practically, in the moral life of man is the difference between the easy going and the strenuous mood. When in the easy-going mood the shrinking from present ill is our ruling consideration. The strenuous mood, on the contrary, makes us quite indifferent to present ill, if only the greater ideal be attained.”1 James claims that any system of ethics that offers us obligations to promote finite human good will fail to energize the strenuous mood. James asserts that “the chief of all reasons why concrete ethics cannot be final is that they have to wait on metaphysical and theological beliefs.”2 He also says that the “the stable and systematic moral universe for which the ethical philosopher asks is fully possible only in a world where there is a divine thinker with all-enveloping demands.”3 James thinks strenuous moral living requires a belief in a God, who is a kind of “divine demander.” As he puts it, “. . . in a merely human world without a God, the appeal to our moral energy falls short of its maximal stimulating power.” 4 James is not entirely clear about why finite human well-being is an insufficient goal to awaken moral energy. His main reason appears to be that the future well being of humans is “too finite.” As he says, we “see too well the vacuum beyond.”
    James’s assertion that theological beliefs are necessary for the most strenuous moral life is, on the face of it, somewhat puzzling given other things he says about morality. For example, he seems to adopt a naturalistic account of the ontology of value which maintains that the good is whatever satisfies demands. His moral epistemology seems empiricist because he maintains that ethical principles and ideals are revisable as they are tested by experience. Thus, James’s moral theory may appear to sit uneasily with any appeal to transcendent theological realities.
    In this paper I seek to make sense of James’s account of strenuous moral living, and the role that theological belief plays in the strenuous life. I will show that some of his arguments for the “theological postulate” are not tenable, and that his case is stronger if his conclusion is weakened to the claim that theological belief may be necessary for some, but not all serious moral agents.
    I proceed as follows. Strenuous moral living is only as good as the conception of morality upon which such a life is based. Therefore, in section I, I briefly address James’s own normative theory centered on his casuist rule. In section II, I argue that even though there are several competing interpretations of James’s casuist rule, any plausible version will take the rule to be a second-order principle which advocates the promotion of the most inclusive good possible. Moreover, any plausible interpretation of the rule implies tolerance and respect for multiple values and conceptions of the good. James’s casuist moral rule is a second-order moral principle that constrains the pursuit of a variety of first order moral ideals. In section III, I develop James’s rich suggestions about ethical attention, making use of some of his psychological ideas and the practical discussions of training attention in Talks to Teachers. James’s approach to ethical attention is crucial for developing the most adequate understanding of strenuous moral living and the role that theological belief plays in such living. In section IV, I argue that James need not be committed to the strong claim that theological beliefs are necessary for the strenuous mood. The weaker claim that theological beliefs may be necessary for the strenuous mood is much more plausible and consistent with Jamesian pluralism. Moreover, acceptance of theological postulate is more plausible when understood as a possible mode of cultivating ethical attention. 4
    A few caveats are in order before we proceed. The first is that the interpretive approach taken in this paper seeks to make the most sense of James’s claims in the “Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” by drawing on a wide range of his corpus including writings that come later than his essay on moral theory. My claim is that, taken on its own terms, “Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” neither adequately clarifies nor supports the theological postulate. Nevertheless, the postulate can be made plausible by drawing on ideas developed in other works by James. 5
    The second caveat is a clarification of the notion of “moral strenuousness.” James frequently uses the phrase “strenuous mood.” I think that it is safe to say that James means to apply the notion of “strenuous mood” to lives as much as he does to dramatic moments of life-altering decisions, let alone to some sort of “state of mind.” As Brown puts it, the strenuous mood is “a possible property that the moral life may possess, if it is conducted under certain conditions.”5 Brown later makes the point that for James the strenuous mood is a “distinctive character which the divestment of self-interest acquires when the moral life involves religious terms of reference.”6 It is unfortunate that James uses the term “mood” since that typically connotes some sort of affective inner state. The strenuous mood does involve affective states, but it is clear that it is not reducible to these. Strenuousness is thus a kind of “second-order” disposition analogous to integrity in that both strenuousness and integrity take other moral commitments as their object. Strenuousness and integrity are only as morally valuable as the ethical ideals with which they engage. Therefore, we need to examine James’s own ethical ideal or what some call his “casuist rule.”
II) James’s Casuist Rule
    The one safe claim to make about James’s casuist rule is that it is a maximizing principle. It enjoins us to seek to realize the most inclusive good possible. James arrives at this casuist rule by establishing that normative terms like “good” and “bad” are only possible on the condition that sentient beings exist. A world with thirty rocks is no better or worse than a world with fifty rocks. It is only when some sentient being cares about a world, or portions thereof, that it makes sense to say the world is good or bad. James uses this metaphysical analysis to support the claim that “the essence of good is simply to satisfy demand.”7 From this claim he argues that we are obligated to maximize as many demands as possible. His basic intuition seems to be that given that it makes no sense to speak of some abstract obligation independently of a sentient being who cares about some good, then obligation must be in some sense grounded in that sentient being’s demands. James seems to be giving an analysis of the conditions under which it is intelligible to apply moral terms rather than an account of the meanings of such terms. In any case, James’s claim seems to be that there is deep conceptual link between “good” and “demand.”
    James alternates between speaking of “demands” and claims.” For example, he writes “we see not only that without a claim actually made by some concrete person there can be no obligation, but that there is some obligation wherever there is a claim. Claim and obligation are, in fact, coextensive terms” . . .8 Here James seems to be asserting a conceptual connection between the notions “obligation” and “claim.” James’s view would suffer blatantly obvious counter-examples if he held that moral agents had obligations to satisfy any and every claim. To make his view more plausible, his thesis can be read as “x has a prima facie obligation to y if and only if y asserts some claim.” Thus, James means something weaker by “claim- linked obligations” than what moral philosophers mean when they speak of binding moral obligations. Micah Hester calls these “pre-critical de facto obligations.9 De facto obligations are the inputs of moral deliberation. The goal of moral deliberation is to arrive at binding moral obligations after sorting through the conflicts and ambiguities associated with de facto obligations. The moral philosopher’s goal is to provide some criterion for adjudicating conflicts between such pre-critical obligations. James’s casuist rule tells us to satisfy as many of these claims or demands as possible.
    James does not explain what he means by “claim,” but it is hard not to get the impression that he means something that could be verbally articulated as in “I claim the right to have healthcare.” Claims, read this way, would be demands expressed in speech acts, whether by the being making the demand or some other proxy. Some support for this reading of James can be found when one considers the fact that he formulates his rule in terms of the maximization of ideals. He writes, ” . . . those ideals must be written highest which prevail at the least cost, or by whose realization the least number of other ideals are destroyed.”10 James offers a more detailed analysis of ideals in other essays.11 Minimally, he seems to think of ideals as purposes or goals that order decisions over time. 9
   But the text is not clear. At other points, James speaks not of maximizing ideals or claims but rather of satisfying demands. Taken this way, James’s ethical rule would be telling us to maximize desire satisfaction. For example he writes, “Take any demand, however slight, which any creature, however weak, may make. Ought it not, for its own sole sake, to be satisfied? If not, prove why not.”12 Thus, James’s ethical rule might be interpreted as telling us to do whatever will maximize as many demands as possible, or at least what which frustrates the fewest demands. He writes “that act must be the best act, accordingly, which makes for the best whole, in the sense of awakening the least sum of dissatisfactions.”13 In light of this passage, animals, children, and the insane could make obligating claims insofar as we (rational beings) could comprehend their demands through non-verbal means. 10
    The interpretive issues here are complex, leading to considerable debate in the secondary literature about how best to read James’s casuist rule.14 Obviously, the question of which interpretation of James’s casuist rule is superior must be settled in order to arrive at a complete interpretation of the moral theory that James actually held. To be sure, if our goal is to develop a reconstructed neo-Jamesian position, we might favor a different interpretation than the one most consistent with James’s writings. My aims in this paper are more limited than an interpretation of James’s actual view or a comprehensive neo-Jamesian moral theory. Therefore, we need not settle this interpretive dispute before we can understand the role that strenuousness plays in James’s philosophy. Any plausible development of Jamesian ethics must accept some view of strenuous moral agency. Jamesian moral agents are committed to creating universes filled with as much good as possible whether “good” here means “satisfied desires,” “moral ideals,” or “the good of an individual.” Even if, as Cooper argues, deontological considerations can be squared with James’s casuist rule, his theory retains the consequentialist aim of maximizing good. Jamesian deontology will patently not regard morality as simply abiding by constraints on action so as to avoid violating rights or dignity of individuals. James recommends the strenuous striving for a more inclusive moral good. Although James recommends that we pay some respect to the moral consensus of our times, he does challenge his readers to be willing to be prepared to rebel against that consensus in order to realize the more inclusive good. (Like utilitarian thinking, it is not obvious that his theory would allow for a meaningful distinction between obligatory and superogatory actions.) 11
    It would be wrong to conclude that James’s view would advocate that those who live strenuously should focus on the energetic pursuit of the inclusive good. James’s pluralism suggests that different individuals might strenuously pursue moral ideals with substantially different contents. Consider the saints that James describes so well in the Varieties. Undoubtedly, their religious ideals involve moral conceptions of one sort or the other— but different saints may have different moral conceptions. Furthermore, it is doubtful that anything like James’s casuist rule is an explicit part of many of these conceptions. To be sure, saints devoted to God may strenuously offer charity to others, and thereby help make possible a greater inclusive good. But it is hardly the case that these lives are based in a Jamesian casuist rule with its liberally tolerant injunction to make room for as many ways of life as possible. Is Ruth Anna Putnam correct when she writes, “that in advocating the most inclusive ideal, James, the philosopher, has in fact imported an ideal of his own.”15 12
   I think we need to make some careful distinctions here. As has been mentioned, strenuousness is a quality of the pursuit of any ideal or way of life. As such, it may attach to any number of ideals be they inclusive or non-inclusive. We might then read James’s casuist rule as a second-order ideal precisely because its function is to offer a philosophical criterion to resolve conflicts amongst first-order ideals. The casuist rule satisfies the philosopher’s demand for some sort of unifying principle in moral life. But it would be misleading to this means that James’s casuist rule is of purely theoretical significance and of no bearing on our practical life. He is quite clear that the moral philosopher and the rest of us should do our best to realize an inclusive whole. This moral project engages the most practical dimensions of our rationality. James points out that the “casuistic question is . . . . most tragically practical”16 because we will never be able to perfectly reconcile all conflicting ideals and goods. This means that the casuist rule is plausibly interpreted as a regulative ideal that guides our efforts to continually make the best, not the perfect, inclusive whole. Thus, James seems to recommend that his casuist rule figure in our moral self-conceptions, presumably, as a regulative constraint on our first-order ideals. Yet it has to be conceded that most people have various first-order ideals with content different and more specific than James’s casuist rule. 13
    The Jamesian ideal of strenuous moral living must, therefore, incorporate the casuist rule in conjunction with more specific ideals. So, in addition to a commitment to inclusivity, I may have a first-order commitment to some religion such as Christianity or Buddhism. My first-order ideals may also include important aesthetic, scientific, or vocational pursuits which may not typically be objects of moral concern. Presumably, the casuist rule would minimally constrain the pursuit of such first-order ideals from thwarting others’ goods. Even if the agents who adopt relatively inclusive first-order ideals do not think of themselves as committed to anything like James’s casuist rule, we might, nevertheless, encourage and praise such ideals on Jamesian grounds. Indeed James offers an optimistic interpretation of social evolution when he claims that the human race is attempting to decide “through actual experiment by what sort of conduct the maximum amount of good can be gained and kept in this world”17 (here James is close to Mill). Thus, looking back over history, we might praise Martin Luther’s innovations in Christianity on the grounds that these made for a more inclusive good for all of Christendom. We do not need to assume that Luther was guided by anything like James’s casuist criterion. We need only assume that some ideals do a better job in promoting inclusivity than others in a given time and context. 14
    With these refinements in place, James view of strenuous moral living amounts to this: “Strenuously pursue your first order ideals. However, be on guard lest this pursuit inhibit the ideals of others—especially when these ideals promote or at least do not threaten greater inclusivity. Take care to adopt first order ideals that promote inclusivity. When possible, strive to help others promote their ideals, especially when those ideals are themselves conducive to inclusivity.” In sum, tolerance and respect are fundamental components of James’s account of strenuous moral living.18 With these refinements in place, we can turn to James’s cautions about abstraction in ethics—cautions that are consequences of his commitment to moral individualism. 15
III) The Priority of Experience
    Notwithstanding his efforts to develop a moral theory centered on the casuist rule, James’s writings about ethics caution us about the limits of theorizing, and they express an outlook towards the moral life that we call James’s moral individualism. Moral individualism is more of an outlook or attitude than it is a normative theory in the sense with which most moral philosophers are concerned.19 James describes his “individualistic philosophy” in the following way: “the truth is too great for any one actual mind, even though that mind be dubbed ‘the Absolute,’ to know the whole of it. The facts and worths of life need many cognizers to take them in. There is no point of view absolutely public universal . . . The practical consequence of such a philosophy is the well-known democratic respect for the sacredness of individuality.”20 For James this sense of the other’s inner reality is conveyed in the effort to sympathize with the standpoint of others—their feelings, hopes, dreams, and fundamental commitments.21 16
    Moral individualism has two sides; one is the appreciation of the “inner reality” of others, the other involves a serious commitment to the improvement of one’s capacity to attend to the inner reality of others.22 A strenuous moral life committed to moral individualism involves the deliberate effort to improve ethical attention—to cultivate the right sorts of moral ideas about self and others. 23 17
    Moral individualism emphasizes the importance of moral seeing, in part because it recognizes the limits of abstract theories or principles. This does not mean that there is no place for theorizing. Rather, for James the moral philosopher and the moral life should nourish each other. Theories, ideals, and principles arise out of experience and they are tested in light of their function in future experience. We need to be willing to revise conceptions in light of fresh experience. James’s arguments imply that some notion of “realizing an inclusive good” will be the core regulative ideal in any acceptable moral philosophy; however, the pragmatic approach would recommend that we be willing to revise, or perhaps even reject, this fundamental rule. Even though they are necessary parts of moral life, principles and ideals are not sufficient. They need to be supplemented by attentive sensitivity to the textures of experience. James writes,

For every real dilemma is in literal strictness a unique situation; and the exact combination of ideals realized and ideals disappointed which each decision creates is always a universe without a precedent, and for which no adequate previous rule exists.24

    James goes on to claim that the moral philosopher is not especially qualified to determine how best to realize an inclusive good in some problematic situation. That task requires receptivity to the “cries of the wounded.” Sympathetic, imaginative and perceptual sensitivities are vital for discerning how to bring about the most inclusive good. Focusing too much upon abstract moral conceptions—even James’s own casuist rule—may end up distracting us from developing such sensitivities, stunting their growth. James suggests that ethical treatises need to be supplemented by other methods of reflection which are better suited to honing our ethical sensitivities. These include “novels and dramas of the deeper sort, with sermons, with books on statecraft and philanthropy and social and economical reform.”25 James’s claim here is congruent with Martha Nussbaum’s view that literature can have moral significance when it portrays nuanced, context-sensitive deliberation.26 If we turn to James’s Talks to Teachers, we find some concrete suggestions about training ethical attention. It will be useful, first, to examine James’s notion of a “full fact” in order to better understand the bi-directional structure of ethical attention. 19
    Near the end of Varieties of Religious Experience, James analyzes experience into subjective and objective parts which together comprise what he calls a “full fact.” He says that experience consists in “a conscious field plus its object as felt or thought plus an attitude towards the object, plus the sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs—such a concrete bit of personal experience may be a small bit, but it is a solid bit as long as it lasts; not hollow, not a mere abstract element of experience, such as the ‘object’ when taken alone.”27 James’s “full facts” have a “bi-directional” intentional structure; they are simultaneously directed at self and world. This does not mean that every experience involves reflective awareness of self and world. Prior to analysis, the “sense of self” and the “attitude towards an object” are rolled together. When things are working well in the moral life, we simply attend to others and respond appropriately. These kinds of moral response are species of “simple attention.” There are times when people need to deliberately cultivate attention. In these instances, the full fact is reflectively decomposed into its constituents: the sense of self, the attitude, and the object. These are instances of “complex attention.” 20
    James uses attention to analyze belief and will, apparently identifying these three concepts. Such identification has some initial plausibility once one accepts James’s assumption that consciousness itself is not a passive recording of ideas but an active agency, attending to features that hold its interest. Attention is a filtering process undertaken by animals with limited cognitive resources. In the Psychology James writes that attention is “the focalization” of consciousness . . . it implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction . . .”28 James’s uses this account of attention to understand volition. He writes that “volitional effort is the effort of attention.”29 Successful volition requires sufficient efforts of attention. In the simple case, we attend to the ideas produced by our brains and, if there are no obstacles, the idea discharges in some behavior. James refers to this as ideo-motor action. James also maintains that psychologically considered “Will and Belief, in short . . (mean). . . a certain relation between objects and the Self. . . (they) . . are two names for one and the same PSYCHOLOGICAL phenomenon.”30 Even if, as Gale maintains,31 James is wrong to identify attention, will, and belief, at the very least James makes a convincing case that attention is crucial for inducing volition and belief in at least a range of some important instances of complex attention. 21
    Strenuous moral living requires that agents take responsibility for what they attend to—be these moral images of the self or images of others. Given James’s psychological assumptions, what we attend to affects moral belief and action. For James, morally praiseworthy acts involve effortful attention to the right sorts of ideas. Strenuous moral living is about continuously arousing the right sorts of ideas that will enable the agent to pursue the most inclusive good. 22
    James talks about the process of cultivating ethical attention in his Talks to Teachers. He writes:

If, then, you are asked, ‘In what does a moral act consist when reduced to its simplest and most elementary form?’ you can make only one reply. You can say that it consists in the effort of attention by which we hold fast to an idea which but for that effort of attention would be driven out of the mind by the other psychological tendencies that are there. To think, in short, is the secret of will just as it is the secret of memory.32

James goes on to remark that the moral educator would do better to focus on “inhibition by substitution” than she would by “inhibition by repression.” The former offers a positive alternative idea, whereas the latter repressively curbs a troubling idea. James says that frequently moral problems involve “finding the right name for a case.” He uses the example of an alcoholic struggling with the decision of whether to take a drink. James says that “his choice of the wrong name seals his doom.”33 Is this a case of “celebrating Christmas with friends?” or is it a case of “giving into the temptation that continues to undermine my life?” The key to the alcoholic’s success lies not simply in repressing a desire, but in training his mind on appropriate case descriptions. He needs to see his situation as “giving into an undermining temptation.” However, he also needs to train his attention on other ideas that replace the drinking ideas so that these eventually no longer grab his mind. For James, the change in what he attends to will likely result in a change in his actions. 24
    Consider another example. I have certain impulsive ideas of my relative as being overbearing, self-absorbed and unsympathetic. Such impulsive ideas might manifest in my behavior, perhaps in the form of argumentative bad-mouthing. But they may be inhibited by other impulsive ideas from the fringe of consciousness—ideas such as fear of disapproval or fear of the unpleasant consequences of open conflict. Over time, through a deliberate effort of attention, I strive to re-configure my hostile attitudes. How do I do it? I might use what James calls inhibition by repression.34 In that case, “both the inhibited idea and the inhibiting idea, the impulsive idea and the idea that negates it, remain along with each other in consciousness, producing a certain inward strain or tension there.” In this case, I might formulate a second-order negative evaluation such as “impatience is wrong here—give that up and strive to be tolerant and loving.” I might also try another route called inhibition by substitution, in which “the inhibiting idea supersedes altogether the idea which it inhibits, and the latter quickly vanishes from the field.”35 Instead of focusing on repressing my own impatient or disgusted responses, I might visualize myself as a kind person. After I have modified self-descriptions, I cast attention back out on the relative. A substitution may be appropriate here. I may think of him as a boy who was abused by his father. Such an imaginative exercise, over time, may lead me to see him differently as he is now—an insecure person who over compensates. I may try to focus on some of his good qualities—perhaps he is struggling to be helpful, in his own way. So the description “former abused child who has problems with intimacy but who is trying in his own way” comes to replace the description “overbearing jerk.” Notice the bi-directional structure of a “full fact” comes into full in these cases of complex ethical attention. Sometimes it is useful to re-describe the “sense of self” that accompanies our responses to certain individuals. Sometimes it is more important to forget the self and focus on the other. 25
    At base, what we attend to—especially habitually over time—shapes the kind of person we become. In the Psychology, James writes,

. . . the energy par excellence has to go farther and choose which interest out of several equally coercive, shall become supreme. The issue here is of the utmost pregnancy, for it decides a man’s entire career. When he debates, Shall I commit this crime? Choose that profession? Accept that office, or marry this fortune? �his choice really lies between one of several equally possible future Characters. What he shall become is fixed by the conduct of the moment.36

Efforts to improve ethical attention, then, are efforts to select those ideas that will, given their impulsive nature, possibly give birth to a new “me” in the future. 27
    Sometimes moral decisions require the risk of condemnation and disapproval from my peers. The opinions of others threaten to derail ethical attention, so special efforts are necessary to sustain attention. In such cases, James says that it is useful to appeal to “other and better possible social judges than those whose verdict goes against me now.”37 James says that I may never meet examples of this ideal social self in my lifetime, but this “possible judging companion” is “the true, the intimate, the ultimate, the permanent me which I seek. This judge is God, the Absolute Mind, the ‘Great Companion.'”38 James claims that specific individuals may play an inspirational role similar to the “ideal social self.” There he says,

. . . just as our courage is so often a reflex of another’s courage, so our faith is apt to be some one else’s faith. We draw new life from the heroic example. The prophet has drunk more deeply than anyone of the cup of bitterness, but his countenance is so unshaken and he speaks such mighty words of cheer that his will becomes our will, and our life is kindled at his own.39

Intensive reflection upon moral exemplars may, over time, shape a person’s habits so that when in the thick of deliberation they are able to more spontaneously sympathize with the interests of others. Imagining what self I may become, judging my actions by an ideal social self, and contemplating moral heroes are ways that an agent may improve attention by way of what James calls “inhibition by substitution.” That is, agents re-describe their characters and actions by reference to some imagined characters. Such imaging methods are more about attending to the part of the full fact of moral experience that involves the “sense of the self” than they are about attending to the inner realities of other persons. 29
    I think that James’s theological postulate can be best understood as an instance of this effort to re-describe agency so as to energize moral effort when difficulties arise.40 I will develop this claim in the concluding section. But first, we need to reject some bad arguments for James’s theological postulate. We will also need to weaken James’s conditional claim so that it reads theological belief may be necessary for the leading maximally strenuous moral lives. 30
IV) The Theological Postulate
    James asserts that theological beliefs are necessary to energize the pursuit of his ethical ideal. He says, “the chief of all reasons why concrete ethics cannot be final is that they have to wait on metaphysical and theological beliefs.”41 Later he clearly favors the view that “the stable and systematic moral universe for which the ethical philosopher asks is fully possible only in a world where there is a divine thinker with all-enveloping demands.”42 James thinks that strenuous pursuit of his normative criterion requires a belief in a God, who is a kind of “divine demander.” As he puts it, ” . . . in a merely human world without a God, the appeal to our moral energy falls short of its maximal stimulating power.” 43 Let’s call this view James’s “theological postulate.” 31
    While James is not very explicit about his reasons for endorsing the theological postulate, three arguments may be reconstructed from the essay. 1) James appears to accept the claim that the “larger” the demand the more obligatory it is.44 Given this assumption, God’s demands would be the most obligatory. 2) James appears to endorse the claim that believing that God’s divine mind is contemplating the correct solution to a moral dilemma offers encouragement to us during difficult deliberations. Such a belief reminds us that what we think is hopeless may only be a function of our own limited view of the matter, and that perhaps we simply need to work harder at getting closer to the way that the divine being views the situation. Finally, 3) at times, James seems to argue that the belief that a divine being is assisting our efforts to realize a more inclusive good provides confidence and energy that our efforts have a good chance of succeeding. Of the three arguments, I think a weak version of this third argument will withstand scrutiny. This argument will also fit nicely with the approach to ethical attention developed in the last section, thereby pointing the way to a compelling reconstruction of James’s notion of strenuous moral living. 32
    Let’s begin with the first argument. How is it that I am motivated by God’s demands in virtue of the size of these demands? If we follow Deborah Boyle, and interpret James’s God as demanding that we maximize the most inclusive arrangement of ideals or demands, then belief in God would supply an additional reason to maximize the most demands possible. If we believe that God’s demand is virtually endless in scope, then presumably we will never be able to rationalize resting on our laurels. His large demand awaits our efforts, and presumably, given his infinite nature,45 we will never be able to fully satisfy him.46 To be sure, a universe with a quite large number of finite demanders requires less of us than a universe in which God’s large demand is added into the mix. But why would belief in the existence of this extra-large demand energize us in the pursuit of the inclusive good? It seems just as likely that we would become disheartened at the frustrating thought that no matter how much better they made their finite human communities, a voracious infinite being was demanding that they do more? 33
    To address this motivational question, we might interpret James as holding the assumption that forceful demands create forceful motives in those that “hear” or contemplate them. Since God’s demand will be the most forceful, then it will supply the strongest motive possible. But a forceful demand may provoke aversion in me (as when I rebel against someone “yelling” at me). Forceful demands might motivate me to fearfully withdraw, finding ways to ignore or shut out the loud voice. 34
    Even if big and loud demanders can cause moral agents to care about obligations, it hardly seems like this is a moral motive for action. We might address this worry by allowing that the motives that cause one to act morally might be quite divergent from the actual standard that justifies action. (This result is common in utilitarian ethics, in which motives and justifications can come apart). So, an agent might be caused to pursue the inclusive good because of fear without thinking of inclusivity as her moral goal. The cause is irrelevant, so long as she strenuously promotes inclusivity. We have already allowed that James’s theory could have a two-tiered structure with specific religious ideals functioning on the first order and the casuist rule on the second order. Why couldn’t the moral conceptions that motivate on the first level be quite different from the second-order conceptions that justify the first order ideals? 35
    This approach has the disadvantage of estranging moral theory from everyday moral practice. I take the “and” in James’s essay title “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” to be referring to a relativity intimate conjunctive relation. James is clear that the philosopher’s task of finding some authoritative criterion to adjudicate conflicts is a practical task. That is to say, the philosophical proposal is supposed to be something that agents can actually use to improve moral life. What else would one expect from a pragmatist approach to moral theory? If pragmatists agree about anything, it is that theories should be used by moral agents to improve their habits and practices. 36
    Consider the idea that it will be helpful to consider the divine demander’s perspective as we struggle to realize an inclusive whole. On this interpretation a belief in God energizes the pursuit of the moral ideal because the belief provides us with some grounds for hoping that we can approximate God’s knowledge of what will best realize the inclusive good.47 James writes,

. . . the stable and systematic moral universe for which the ethical philosopher asks is fully possible only in a world where there is a divine thinker with all-enveloping demands. If such a thinker existed, his way of subordinating the demands to one another would be the finally valid casuistic scale; his claims would be the most appealing; his ideal universe would be the most inclusive realizable whole. If he now exist, then actualized in his thought already must be that ethical philosophy which we seek as the pattern which our own must evermore approach.48

The point here is not that we could decide morally correct actions by appeal to what “God thinks.” James asserts that the moral philosopher is like the rest of us; since we cannot know God’s mind, we simply use him as a postulate in order “to let loose in us the strenuous mood.”49 If I am committed to James’s ethical ideal, I may find myself in discouraging, possibly tragic, situations in which it seems like no satisfactory harmony of demands can be found. Whatever I do, much butchering (to use James’s metaphor) of demands will result. The hope that perhaps someone has a better perspective on the conflict situation may encourage me not to give up deliberating as soon as I might otherwise.50 But do I need to believe that God exists right now, contemplating the correct solution to a moral problem, in order to be inspired to cultivate a more inclusive self? We need to distinguish between two possible claims:

1) There exists right now a divine mind that comprehends the best possible harmony of satisfied demands.

2) There is some possible perspective that might be attained, which will discern the best possible harmony of satisfied demands.

Even though it might be encouraging to imagine that God is somewhere pondering the best way to realize the most demands, my real motivation to strive harder in the pursuit of the ethical ideal is my conviction that I can get closer to that better perspective. This conviction is plausibly tied to an aspiration to strive to become an “inclusive self”—a self better able to understand and act upon the ethical ideal. James’s notion of an “ideal social self” helps here; that self might be identified with some existent divine being. However, this ideal might simply be understood as a “better version of me.” Pragmatically, it may matter little which we choose. The crucial point is that given the connections that James makes between attention, will, and belief, imaging an inclusive may be a sensible motivational strategy. We will return to this point, shortly, after considering James’s third argument for belief in the theological postulate. 39
    James scoffs at moral commitment to merely human improvement. He writes, “We do not love these men of the future keenly enough; and we love them perhaps the less the more we hear of their evolutionized perfection.”51 Obviously, whether “finite humanity” could inspire moral effort will depend to a great degree on personal inclinations. Even if historically humans have appealed to supernatural beliefs for moral inspiration, it hardly follows that this will continue to be desirable or necessary. But what seems to really bother James is less the boring character of evolutionized humans than the fact that promoting such evolution is “all too finite” and that “we see too well the vacuum beyond.”52 These remarks suggest that the real worry here is one about the puny efficacy of our own efforts. We are more likely to strenuously pursue the inclusive good if we believe that our contributions will be continued by God after we are gone. Belief that I have help from a divine demander encourages my zeal in pursuing the ethical ideal. How does that thought help to motivate me? On the one hand, it may actually make me somewhat morally lax because I may assume that someone stronger than me will pick up any of my moral slack. James, of course, is well aware of this particular danger. He never tires of cautioning us about the ways that belief in an absolute being serves as an excuse to go on “moral holidays.” On holiday, we ignore evil because we believe an absolute being will take care of it. James’s theistic solution to such holiday temptations is to downgrade God’s powers just enough so that he needs our help. He may be stronger than us but he alone will not necessarily be able to alleviate evil. He needs our help. This approach may work to motivate but it obviously depends on knowledge claims about God that we can hardly validate (James would admit as much). But even setting aside worries about how we can know that God is like this, there is a larger problem: why should the belief in a divine helper motivate us to try to work for the ethical ideal? James might reply by pointing out that if I start with the assumption that I already care deeply about the realization of as many demands as possible, then belief in some stronger (but not all powerful) divine demander supplies additional encouragement in the pursuit of my project. After all, most people that take up life projects want them to succeed. Although there may be a great degree of variability regarding how much risk one is willing to take, it is generally true that the less likely the prospect for success the less motivated we are to undertake a life project. James is saying that we would be more motivated to pursue the project of maximizing demands if we simply believed that we are contributing to that inclusive whole of satisfied demands that includes God’s help. 40
    But given that we can’t know whether the divine demander exists, and given that we are already committed to a project of creating an inclusive whole, why would we be more motivated to pursue this project by believing in him? Consider an analogy: I am a resident physician in an emergency room and am committed to saving as many patients as possible tonight. I know that if the attending doctor shows up in another room there is a greater possibility more patients will be saved tonight. But given my commitment, it would seem that I would be as motivated to save my patients regardless of whether I believed the doctor shows up. To be sure, as a resident, the presence of a more experienced doctor will be encouraging. I may lack confidence in my skills. But if I care about saving lines and I believe that the other doctor may not show up I may be even be more motivated. If any patients are going to be saved tonight, it is up to me to do it! I may be more motivated to pursue this project if I believed it really depended on me (and my cohorts). 41
    Still, in the spirit of pluralism, we could concede that some people may not find strenuous motivation without some belief in the help of a divine being. James may have overestimated the psychological necessity for belief in such a being when he writes, “the capacity of the strenuous mood lies so deep down among our natural human possibilities that even if there were no metaphysical or traditional grounds for believing in God, men would postulate one simply as a pretext for living hard, and getting out of the game of existence its keenest possibilities of zest.”53 However, this observation is certainly true for some moral agents. Would it be rational to deny an over-belief in a divine demander if such a belief did provide significant moral energy to some? Let’s grant that such an over-belief would pass the tests for epistemic permissibility set out in James’s essay “Will to Believe.” That is, this over-belief is a forced, living, momentous option which appeals to a person’s passional nature, and which does not violate evidence. Condoning such beliefs seems reasonable so long as the content of this over-belief is not morally dubious, as it is when, for example, a person is morally motivated for the sake of God-given rewards. A morally acceptable content of such a belief might be some notion that the moral project of pursuing the most demands will never cease. Although it may wax and wane depending on the efforts of finite beings, it will never completely wane because God will continually take up the cause.54 Notice that the position advocated here is more pluralist than James seems willing to allow. The claim is that the theological postulate may be necessary to let loose energy in some, but not all. It all depends on what it takes for you to let loose the strenuous mood. However, James does not succeed in offering reasons that show anyone must accept his theological postulate. Nevertheless, a weaker version of James’s claim is defensible. The claim might work like this. If you are the sort of person whose “sense of moral agency” is flagging because of doubts about the efficacy of your will, then you should consider adopting the appropriate theological belief. 42
    As has been emphasized, James’s account of moral motivation revolves around deliberate efforts to cultivate attention. The theological postulate is not mere intellectual assent to a proposition about facts disconnected from the agent. Rather, the postulate is part of a person’s attempt to vividly portray his or her own agency in a theological context that inspires hope that moral effort can succeed. Such a postulate is particularly useful when things get difficult.Spelled out in more detail, the decision to adopt the theological postulate could be put in the form of the following complex conditional.

If you are the sort of person who is

i) having skeptical doubts about the efficacy of your will in the pursuit of the inclusive good and,

ii) these skeptical doubts threaten to inhibit your ability to live a morally strenuous life and,

iii) these doubts about efficacy are based in the belief that your own powers are miniscule relative to the evil in the universe and,

iv) you have a propensity to have a religious belief in some higher power that helps our moral efforts (which belief would help to unblock the obstacles to a strenuous moral life) and,

v) this religious belief meets the requirements of any religious hypothesis as set out in James’s “Will to Believe” essay then,

vi) you have good reason to adopt a religious belief in some higher power or divine being that helps you in your quest to realize an inclusive good.

    Interpreted in this weaker way, James’s theological postulate is one among several ways that people may attempt to re-describe their agency so as to inspire more effort. The postulate is therefore on par with James’s notions of the ideal social self and moral exemplars. Attention to these notions can be a useful strategy for energizing moral life. 44
    Much more needs to be said to offer a complete picture of James’s moral philosophy. But no picture of this philosophy will be complete without due consideration of the moral relevance of attention, strenuousness, and religious belief. These three ideas form the core of James’s moral individualism. It is clear that James himself regarded moral individualism as the animating insight of his approach to moral philosophy, even though it cannot be denied that his elaboration and defense of the casuist rule is his most explicit theoretical statement. Nevertheless, what moral individualism may lack in terms of a developed philosophical articulation is made up for by the rich insights it afforded James. It is up to us to develop these insights more completely, whether by developing a tighter conceptual connection between moral individualism and the casuist rule, or by replacing the casuist rule with a plausible surrogate. 45
Religion and Philosophy Department
Muskingum College


1 James (1977) p. 627.

2 James (1977) p. 626.

3 Ibid. p. 628.

4 Ibid. p. 627. My concern is not to evaluate James’ epistemological justifications of our “right” to hold religious beliefs, but to throw into question his claim that a theistic postulate energizes the pursuit of his normative ideal.

5 Brown (2000), p. 99.

6 Ibid., p. 102.

7 James (1977), p. 621.

8 ibid. p. 617.

9 Hester (1999).

10 James (1977) p. 623.

11 See, for example, “What Makes Life Significant” and “On A Certain Blindness in Human Beings” in James (1977).

12 James (1977) p. 617.

13 James (1977) p. 623.

14 Richard Gale interprets James as a desire-satisfaction utilitarian. James’ casuist rule, in this view, tells us to maximize demand satisfaction. See also, Roth (1969) pp. 66-70 and Myers (1986) pp. 398-400 who discuss the tension in James’ apparent commitments to some sort of maximizing consequentialism and his commitment to deontic considerations. Wesley Cooper takes James to be offering us what he calls “ideal-maximizing consensualism” Cooper (2002), p. 225. On this interpretation, the casuist rule enjoins us to maximize those ideals which have survived, and will continue to survive, public scrutiny and rational reflection. The virtues of Gale’s approach are that the theory would include non-rational beings and it would offer us a fairly well-defined procedure for resolving practical ethical questions. Of course, the price that Gale’s interpretation must pay is the same as that of any act utilitarian position. Utilitarianism strains our intuitions about respecting the dignity and rights of individuals since it seems to allow rights violations for the sake of maximizing desire satisfaction. Gale’s interpretation has the added price of charging James with inconsistency, since James clearly advocates deontological constraints on action. The virtue of Cooper’s approach is that it accommodates James’ moral pluralism, allowing that some of the ideals to be maximized will parse deontological considerations. Cooper’s approach also allows for genuine qualitative differences between goods. One problem with Cooper’s approach is that it would seem to rule out non-rational beings. At best such beings could be counted if their well-being figured in the ideals of those who articulate moral ideals.A promising third alternative interpretation of James’ rule would be to take “claims” to be referring to an individual’s own good, as defined in terms of what it would take for it to flourish over a life time. An individual’s own good may include his or her considered moral ideals, but it if the individual is incapable of holding ideals, then its “own good” may be defined more in terms of species-typical flourishing. Thus, the good of a sheep or dog need not make reference to articulated claims or ideals but rather by reference to some species-specific account of what it is for such an animal to do well over a lifetime. Thus, “claim” would not refer to simply any desire that an individual had at any time but it would not necessarily refer to something an individual could formulate in a speech act.

15 Rorty (1990), p. 84.

16 James (1977), p. 621.

17 Ibid., p. 624.

18 For a nuanced discussion of the variety of ways that an ideal might be inclusive see Putnam, “The Moral Life of a Pragmatist,” pp. 84-89.

19 The phrase “moral individualism” comes from Ralph Barton Perry.

20 Perry (1996) p. 222.

21 This is the central theme of his essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” In that essay, James laments the fact that so much of our lives are spent in sheer blindness to ways of life different from or own. Sympathetic awareness of the other need not imply that we come to share the same values as the other. But it ought to issue forth in a certain respect for the fact that other lives are animated by values quite different from our own. Even when we cannot sympathetically enter into another life, we may still appreciate the fact that this life possesses some significance for itself.

22 Commenting on his essay “On A Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” James says that this essay represents “the perception on which my whole individualistic philosophy is based.”22 “Jamesian scholarship has, understandably, focused much attention on the normative standpoint reflected in his maximization principle or casuist rule in his essay “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.” But James himself would probably argue that individualism’s core perception of the worth of the individual is more important than any more detailed philosophical doctrine to which it might be attached.

23 James’ views bear an affinity with Iris Murdoch. See Brown (200).

24 James (1977), p. 626.

25 Ibid.

26 See, for example Nussbaum (1990).

27 James (1990) p. 447.

28 James (1950b) p. 404.

29 James (1977) p. 709.

30 James (1950b) p. p. 404.

31 See Gale (1999) chapter 2, “The Willfulness of Belief.”

32 James (1929) pp. 186 �187.

33 Ibid., p. 188.

34 Ibid., p. 193.

35 Ibid.

36 James (1950a) p. 288.

37 Ibid., p. 315.

38 Ibid., pp. 315-316.

39 James (1950b) p. 579.

40 To be sure, ethical attention is not exclusively concerned with self. We also need methods to cultivate sympathetic attention to others. Meditation practices, contemplation of stories in film, literature or in memoirs are just a few examples of concrete methods that might help agents hone their capacity to attend to the reality of others.

41 Ibid., p. 626.

42 Ibid. p. 628.

43 Ibid. p. 627. My concern is not to evaluate James’ epistemological justifications of our “right” to hold religious beliefs, but to throw into question his claim that a theistic postulate energizes the pursuit of his normative ideal.

44 See Boyle (1998) for an excellent discussion of this point.

45 In this essay James speaks of an “infinite demander.” Later, he seems to hold a view of God as finite, or at least as fallible. Probably, James’ views of the nature of God evolved.

46 Boyle (1998)

47 Gale (1999) calls this version of the postulate “God as the knowingest kid on the block.”

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid. p. 629.

50 This understanding of the motivating function of the divine demander resembles the impartial spectator device used in much utilitarian moral philosophy. Nevertheless, James’ use of such a device need not imply the attempt to attain a perfect comprehension the perspectives of all sentient beings—or even of those beings who are likely to be affected by a particular act. Besides being too demanding, such a totalizing perspective runs the risk of falling into the incoherent position of trying to simultaneously combine finite and infinite perspectives. (James criticizes this sort of faulty combination in many of his attacks against absolute idealism).

51 James (1977) p. 627.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid., p. 628

54 It is not clear one need even accept a monotheistic deity in order to generate a similar sort of moral inspiration. For example, those Buddhists who believe that buddhas and bodhisattvas never give up on helping sentient beings, and that every sentient being is a potential Buddha, might be motivated to live strenuously according to the belief that the moral cause will always have the support of these sorts of beings.


Works Cited

Brown, Hunter.(2000) William James on radical empiricism and religion (Toronto: The University of Toronto Press).

Boyle, Deborah (1998) “William James’ Ethical Symphony” (Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4) pp. 977-1003

Cooper, Wesley (2002) The Unity of William James’ Thought (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press).

Gale, Richard (1999) The Divided Self of William James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

James, William (1977) The Writings of William James, ed. J. McDermott (Chicago, University of Chicago Press).

— (1950a) Principles of Psychology, Vol. One (New York: Dover Publications, Inc.).

—(1950b) Principles of Psychology, Vol. Two (New York: Dover Publications, Inc.).

—(1990) The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Vintage Books).

Hester, Micah (1999) “The Possibility For Tragic Obligations” (Streams of William James: The Newsletter of the William James Society, Vol. 1, Issue 3), pp. 13-16.

Nussbaum, Martha Craven (1990) Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.

Perry, Ralph Barton (1996) The Thought and Character of William James (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press).

Putnam, Ruth Anna (1990) “The Moral Life of A Pragmatist,” Identity, Character and Morality, ed. O. Flannagan and A. O. Rorty (New York, Bradford Book) pp. 67-89.

Myers, Gerald (1986) William James (New Haven, Yale University Press).

Roth, John K. (1969) Freedom and The Moral Life: The Ethics of William James (Philadelphia, Westminster Press).

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